Winter can be tough on foragers, especially those far from the coast who rely on field and forest. Mushrooms, so enthusiastically pushing through the leaf litter a few weeks ago, have retreated into the dirt. The generous hedgerows have become rather miserly, offering up a few scant rose hips and the occasional sour crab-apple. The shoots of wild garlic, that pungent allium, are yet to appear in the damp valleys of the forest, and all is quiet. Except it isn’t, not quite.
There is something other-worldly about a forest in winter. Hoar frost clings to everything, a glittering gown of ice. Mist curls and sashays around the trees. The light is thin, almost liquid, and the shadows are evening-long even at noon. There is a barely discernible hum under your feet, a vibration, as if all the life that has withdrawn underground is shivering, waiting for the spring to signal that it is safe to emerge once more. If you stand still and hold your breath, you can feel it, almost hear it. A promise. Clues. And there are edibles to be found, hardy and brave. There are a few species of fungi – velvet shanks, oysters, winter chanterelles – that you can find right through all but the harshest winters. And it is possible to gather enough wild winter greens to bring a bright crunch to the day.
Common wintercress (Barbarea vulgaris) is the most readily found of the several species of wintercess. It is a brassica, and the flavour gives this away – mustardy, cabbagey, and really rather bitter. It’s green glossy leaves are hairless, deeply lobed, and grow in the rosette shape so typical of the brassica family. Its flowers are four-petalled and yellow. It can be found on verges and field edges, and is at it’s most palatable in winter. A few leaves are all that is needed in a salad, as the flavour is so strong.
Wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella) is a beautiful, delicate plant. Its has three heart-shaped leaves that have a fold down the middle and grow from a thin central stem. The flowers, which are found in the spring, have five petals and are white or pink, with deeper pink lines running up them. These blossoms are infertile, the plant actually reproduces using self-fertile flowers near the base of the plant. It is to be found on forest floors, often where the ground covering is mossy, and sometimes you will come across huge carpets of the stuff – truly stunning when it is flowering. The flavour is sharp, somewhat akin to the rind of a green apple. This acidity comes from oxalic acid, which can do you harm if consumed in large quantities, though you would have to eat a lot of wood sorrel to be affected. Do pick the stem as well as the leaves, as there is much flavour there.
Hairy bittercress (Cardamine hirsuta) is not, as the name suggests, either particularly bitter or particularly hairy. The taste is somewhat peppery, a little like a mild rocket. It is another member of the brassicaceae and thusly grows in a rosette, with pairs of leaflets running down the stalks and a larger end leaf. It is very common, and can be found growing on verges, cracks in walls, waste ground, pretty much anywhere. Hairy bittercress produces tiny, white, four-petalled flowers. When in seed it grows long thin seed pods, which when ripe will explode at the merest touch, which is great fun.
Chickweed (Stellaria media) is to be found on disturbed ground, gardens, field edges and damp corners. It grows all throughout the year, but is tough and stringy in the summer. It grows in great tangles of straggly stalks, with oval slightly pointed leaves. A key to identifying it is the single line of fine hairs that runs down the stem. The flowers, when there, are white with five deeply divided petals. The texture is pleasingly crisp and fleshy, and its mild flavour makes it ideal for balancing the more robust flavours of a wild salad. I have experimented and can confirm that chickens do indeed love chickweed.
Jack-in-the-hedge, or garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolata), is mainly to be found from March through until early summer, but does produce new leaves towards the end of autumn. Another member of the brassica family, its flavour betrays its family ties – mustard, cabbage, with more than a hint of garlic. It grows up to a metre tall, and has a single stem with serrated, heart-shaped, pointed leaves and four-petalled white flowers. The leaves give an unmistakable aroma when crushed, which aids identification. It is to be found along hedgerows and woodland edges, even in ditches. Later in the summer it becomes rather bitter, and it is always best to pick to tops as the flavour is finer.
Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is that perennial flower, so loved by bees and hated by keepers of immaculate lawns. I’m with the bees (my lawn is far from immaculate). It has sharply serrated hairless leaves, growing in a rosette shape. The flowers are bright yellow, turning to fluffy white seed heads famed for accurate time-keeping abilities. The root, dried and roasted, makes a passable coffee substitute. The flowers make an excellent country wine, and can be infused into spirits for a wild liqueur or used in marmalade. The leaves can be found all through the year, although can be rather bitter, so again just a few will suffice.
There are several other wild greens to be found in winter, such as alexanders and crow garlic, but the above I have found to be the most abundant. As ever, if you don’t know what it is with surety, don’t eat it.
Wild Winter Salad
As for a recipe? One of the lovely things about foraging is that you never know what you might find. If I were to give a recipe here calling for 20g of this or 50g of that, it would be disingenuous. And you might spend hours tramping the frozen woods for a certain ingredient where, in truth, it is not all that vital – a salad is about balance, of taste and of texture.
So the best thing to do here, then, is to go for a walk and see what you find. Pick some, bring it home. Aim for a range of winter greens to match your palette. A little wintercress for a thwack of bitterness, some chickweed for a milder crunch, a scattering of sorrel for some zing to bring the whole thing together.
Make up a good salad dressing. A teaspoon of Dijon mustard, a teaspoon of a fruity vinegar such as raspberry. A pinch of salt, and then a good olive oil, added drop by drop and whisked so the dressing emulsifies properly.
Wash your gathered greens and dry them well, either with a salad spinner or by giving them a good shake. Add a little dressing and toss gently. Taste it, adding a drop more dressing if that is your desire. Maybe a few croutons, perhaps some lightly pickled thinly sliced shallots. Some toasted hazelnuts will work well.
I find that these robust wild flavours go well with something offaly – some chicken livers fried in butter and a few slivers of garlic. Or gésiers de canard, if you can find some – duck gizzards that have been cured and slow-cooked as a confit, served warm. Some crusty bread with plenty of butter, a glass of something dry, and you’re good to go; a satisfying, wild, warming winter lunch.